Katie Couric's Talk Show Teetering on the Verge of Cancellation

Katie Couric Illustration - P 2013
Illustration by: Kyle Hilton

Katie Couric Illustration - P 2013

Soft ratings, a huge budget and "disdain" for her female audience — Q Scores report only 10 percent of women view Couric favorably — have the host's Disney/ABC talk show in jeopardy as a renewal decision nears.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

One of the TV's priciest daytime experiments soon could be coming to an end. Stations throughout the U.S. are contracted to carry Katie Couric's syndicated talk show through summer 2014, but the decision on whether Katie will score a third season likely will be made this month -- and renewal seems a long shot.

In fall 2012, Disney/ABC TV rolled out the red carpet for Couric, 56, giving her plum time slots on the best stations, fat license fees and loads of promotion. The initial annual budget was $50 million, according to a show source -- including $20 million for Couric over two years. (That budget has been brought down to $35 million. Similar talk shows cost about $20 million a year.) But station owners now complain the daily strip hasn't lived up to the hype, and several insiders tell THR that internal discord has become nearly unbearable.

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"They certainly anticipated the show would be doing better than it's doing," says Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Media Group. "Based on what they paid for the show and the time periods they put it in, and the promises that were made, it just hasn't happened."

Disney/ABC projected the reteaming of Couric with her Today executive producer Jeff Zucker would average a 2.5 household rating, which would have made Katie one of the biggest syndicated launches. Instead, it averaged a 1.7 during its first season and a 1.8 so far this season. (A Couric spokesman insists she never approved the 2.5 projection.)

And from the start, turnover has plagued the show. Zucker decamped for CNN about halfway through the first season, followed by co-executive producer Michael Bass. Michael Morrison assumed Zucker's role but was replaced in May by Rachel Miskowiec, a former EP of The Tyra Banks Show. Co-EPs Kathy Samuels and Ethan Nelson then left in what was called a cost-cutting move. Director Joe Terry also decamped.

Katie insiders say the problem is that Couric has refused to shape shows with softer features to appeal to daytime's key 25-to-54-year-old female demo, insisting instead on the kind of harder-edged interviews she enjoyed on Today and her stint as anchor of CBS Evening News.

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"She has a complete and utter disdain for the audience she needs to appeal to," says one former employee. "In her mind, the Today show was [the model] -- professional women getting ready for work. Anyone home after 9 o'clock are people she has no interest in appealing to. But she also loved the $20 million paycheck." A source close to Couric dismisses that characterization and says, "It is because of Katie's great respect for her audience that she introduces fresh perspectives and substantive material into the show."

Despite pleas from staff, "she always wanted to lead with experts," adds the ex-employee. "Her producers said: 'Katie, if you want to do this social issue, bring in people who have lived it. Get the kids to tell their mother's story and empathize and relate. Then in segment six we'll have the experts.' What happens? 'Segment one we're having the sociologist from Harvard.' " Couric's strategy also has led to difficulty in booking some guests. Joan Rivers is said to have told producers she won't return after being grilled by Couric. Sandra Bullock's publicist refused to book her on Katie in part because the show insisted on probing about her marriage and adopted son, a source says. (A Disney rep denies this and the Couric source says, "Katie has said from the beginning that she wanted to provide her guests — especially well-known celebrities — with a platform to discuss issues that are important to them...while also talking about their latest projects." Examples of this are Barbra Streisand talking about women and heart disease and the Orange Is The New Black cast discussing the U.S. prison system.)

Miskowiec, the new EP, says that whatever missteps there were in the past, Katie has found its rhythm: no more single-subject shows; instead, a mix of serious journalism, celebrities and human-interest segments. "She talks about what America's talking about," Miskowiec tells THR, "tackling a wide range of subjects -- both serious and light in tone -- that speak directly to her female viewers."

Although Katie was the top new talk show last season, it tied in the 25-to-54 demo with Steve Harvey, which did not have as strong a station lineup. Disney/ABC is now talking to stations about renewing Katie, but many owners are said to have concerns.

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A lot is at stake for Disney, which has an estimated $100 million invested in Couric (the cost is shared by its TV distribution arm and ABC News). Eight Disney-owned stations pay higher license fees than others; and the network gave back an hour of daytime to stations to provide a place for Katie -- an hour stations likely won't give back if the show is canceled.

"The owned stations are really carrying a burden," says an ABC affiliate GM. "There's no doubt [Katie] has damaged the lead-in to newscasts."

The Q Scores company reported in September that only 10 percent of women view Couric favorably, while 21 percent view her in a negative light. By contrast, daytime leader Ellen DeGeneres has a 29 percent positive Q score and 14 percent negative.

A Couric source says she is adamant about doing a show she is proud of, and she is prepared to move on if the ratings don't back up her mission. Her contract with ABC News is said to expire next summer, so she could be a free agent or she could stay with ABC even if Katie is canceled. One report has her in discussions with Yahoo, another possibility could be that she reunites with Zucker at CNN.

And there is a scenario where Couric and Disney agree to cut the cost of the program to offer renewals at a lower fee -- but that would almost certainly require a pay cut for her.

Email: Alex.Benblock@thr.com

Twitter: @ABBlock